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TERROR: The Search for bin Laden

Author: Claire Miller
March 3, 2004

Are coalition forces closing in on Osama bin Laden?

We don't know. U.S. and Pakistani administration and military officials have announced stepped-up efforts to find bin Laden and other Qaeda and Taliban fugitives. The spring campaign is focused on the mountainous region along the 2,450-kilometer Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are believed to be hiding. The crackdown includes an increase in the number of troops devoted to hunting bin Laden, new intelligence efforts, and major shifts in tactics by ground forces.

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What have officials said about the hunt?

Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hilferty, senior spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said January 29, "We have a variety of intelligence, and we're sure we're going to catch Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar this year." Officials have since backpedaled. At a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul February 26, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said forces hunting bin Laden are no "closer or farther at any given moment. ... I suspect that we'll find [the capture] is accomplished at some point in the future, and I wouldn't have any idea when."

What new tactics are coalition forces using?

Press reports say Task Force 121, the secret team of Special Operations forces and CIA personnel established in the fall 2003 to find Saddam Hussein, will shift its efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan. The team will use tactics similar to those that led U.S. forces to Saddam Hussein, press reports say, including questioning people with familial and tribal bonds to the fugitives. Additionally, Lieutenant General David W. Barno, commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said in a briefing February 17 that the 11,000 American forces in Afghanistan have shifted tactics over the last three months. Instead of mounting short raids into the border region, 50-soldier platoons are living in area villages for months at a time in order to develop relationships with locals, glean intelligence, and work with international aid groups.

How do forces cooperate with the aid groups?

In order for Afghan locals to welcome U.S. forces into their villages and share intelligence with them, many experts say, the United States must make inroads by providing aid, reconstruction, and security. "Based on my experience [operating locally] in the Balkans, if American soldiers, when they show up, do good things, they can win over gradually all but the most violently antagonistic," says Colonel Peter A. Henry, U.S. Army military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. By maintaining a military and international aid presence in the tribal border regions, U.S. forces "will present terrorist organizations with an impossible situation, one where they cannot demonstrate any viable alternative of value to the Afghan people," Barno said. U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are developing Regional Development Zones (RDZs), within which officials will coordinate reconstruction, international aid, and security in each region of the country. Coalition-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams, made up of 60 to 100 military and civilian personnel, will be integrated in the RDZ program. The first RDZ is being established in Kandahar.

Will the locally based tactics work?

Experts disagree. It's a "viable strategy ... the better friends you are with the people who live there, the more likely you are to uncover the bit of knowledge that will lead to the capture of enemy forces," says Lieutenant Colonel Michael A. Coss, military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. So far, the tactics have generated some success: in the last month, civilians have turned in more weapons caches than in the prior six months, Barno said.

But some experts say the strategy is flawed. The relatively small number of U.S. forces will have difficulty covering a significant portion of the vast border area, Henry says. While some locals may cooperate, others who have strong bonds to the fugitives may alert them to the presence of U.S. forces, says Mahnaz Ispahani, the Council's senior fellow for South and West Asia. The language barrier will impede close relationships between soldiers and locals. The troops' use of Afghan translators from other parts of the country may provoke hostility among border-area residents, according to Kathy Gannon, Associated Press bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She adds that publicity surrounding the crackdown is sure to put al Qaeda on the run. "Everybody is talking about this spring offensive, so what are these people doing? [Just] sitting in the border area thinking, 'Do you think they're coming?'"

Has the U.S. Army successfully used these locally based tactics before?

Yes. Press reports say U.S. forces living in Iraqi villages were able to gather intelligence on Saddam Hussein's whereabouts from locals and, because they were based nearby, act on it almost immediately. The army has received training in the tactics at least since the early 1990s--they were used in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia--and some military experts say the tactics were also employed successfully in Vietnam. Coss, who used this approach in the Balkans, says, "The more you interact with the population, the more you can find out valid grievances and the more you can address, the more you become a trusted agent--then they're willing to tell you more and more information."

What are Pakistan's new methods?

For the past two months, Pakistani officials have been using a new strategy in the semi-autonomous border region called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). They demand that tribal elders hand over Qaeda members hidden in their villages or face punishments, including destruction of houses and withholding of government funds, inflicted on the entire tribe. In December, officials insisted that tribal leaders hand over some 80 suspected Qaeda members. Only about half--mostly low-level operatives--were turned in by the February 20 deadline. British colonialists used similar tactics in the early 1900s to control criminal activity in the tribal areas.

Pakistani officials say they will also increase the number of troops in the border region from 25,000 to some 80,000, and the number of troops in the South Waziristan Agency— which falls within the FATA and is believed to be a Qaeda hideout— from 4,000 to 12,000. The FATA traditionally were under the control of local authorities; Pakistani forces entered for the first time in December 2001. While U.S. troops are not authorized to patrol on Pakistan's side of the border, Barno said they are using a "hammer-and-anvil approach," in which Pakistanis drive terrorists over the border to Afghanistan, where coalition troops are waiting to capture them.

Will Pakistan follow through on its threats to punish tribes for failing to produce Qaeda suspects?

Experts are uncertain. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has strong ties to the religious parties that support the Taliban in the border region, Ispahani says. While reports say some tribal leaders burned the houses of villagers harboring Qaeda members who weren't handed over by the deadline, it's unclear whether Pakistani troops followed through on their threats. They did, however, conduct raids February 24 in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, to find the Qaeda members not turned over by tribal elders, Pakistani officials said. They captured some 25 people, along with weapons, passports, and documents.

Will Pakistan's tactics work?

"It's not such a simple matter to have them turn over their brethren" related by blood, marriage, and tribal affinity, says Ispahani. Gannon agrees that while the threats may persuade people not to harbor Qaeda members, there is no incentive for tribes to hand them over. But others say the raids will be successful if they put al Qaeda on the run, especially over the border toward coalition troops patrolling in Afghanistan. Citing U.S. intelligence officials, ABC News reported February 25 that bin Laden and Zawahiri had crossed the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan in the wake of the Pakistani raids.

Have these tactics worked before?

Yes. The Taliban, for instance, significantly decreased opium production in the tribal areas using a similar strategy, Gannon says. They told village elders and mullahs that they would face consequences if any villager grew poppies, "so you had enforcement done by villagers because they would be held responsible," she says. "It makes sense to look at what worked ... and use the traditional systems."

What are Musharraf's motives?

The spring offensive marks a sharp shift for Musharraf, many experts say. U.S. officials had complained about a lack of full Pakistani cooperation in anti-Qaeda efforts in the tribal regions. But experts say two attempts on Musharraf's life in December, blamed on Islamist extremists, spurred him to intensify his efforts. Many experts say the situation on the Pakistan border is critically important to Afghan security, and the United States, in the wake of attacks in Afghanistan against local residents and aid workers and concerns about guaranteeing the security of elections scheduled for this summer, has increased pressure on Musharraf to crack down. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet made an unpublicized visit to Pakistan in February. Events surrounding the recent discovery of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's illicit sale of nuclear secrets and his subsequent pardon--uncontested by the United States--may also have affected Musharraf's actions, some experts say. "Khan may be related in the sense that the Pakistanis are more cooperative as we have been more cooperative with them," says Nicholas Platt, president of the Asia Society and former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

Why are U.S. forces in Afghanistan shifting their tactics now?

Several reasons, experts say. Qaeda members resume activity as the warmer weather approaches--and last spring, many Special Operations forces and intelligence analysts were tied up in Iraq. Al Qaeda has stopped moving in large, easily detectable groups, and now travels in smaller units, according to Barno. To adapt to al Qaeda's changing tactics, it's advantageous for troops to be in the border area. Some analysts have said the United States may be cracking down to improve Bush's re-election prospects, but others--like Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs and former Clinton National Security Council official--say national security operations of this magnitude are generally not affected by purely political motives. The new strategy may also be a sign that the situation in the border region is improving. "The local security environment must be permissive enough that we're willing to send our forces out in the populace for long periods of time," Henry says. But some experts say the reason for the shift in tactics might be just the opposite--the region may be so dangerous that international aid groups cannot work without military forces beside them.

Does it matter if bin Laden is caught?

His capture would have an "enormous symbolic impact on jihadism and al Qaeda, but ... we're not under any illusions that it will solve terrorism," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on global terrorism and director of the RAND Corporation's Washington, D.C. office. It may even have the opposite effect, he says, because jihadis might rally around the terror leader as a martyr. "Fundamentally, he built a movement ... that he believes should and would outlive him," and has provided money to sustain it beyond his lifetime, Hoffman says. And, he adds, "getting bin Laden and not getting [al Qaeda No. 2] Zawahiri doesn't give us anything."

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